“Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.” -Jacques Derrida

Yesterday I wrote about how I don’t like obsessing over the past, because I want to focus on what’s ahead. Getting all misty-eyed behind your rose-tinted glasses as you recall the “best years of your life” is for unhappy people, and despite my grumpiness I don’t think of myself that way. But you can blather on about what you hope to do later in life. It does occur to me though, that in order to write about things you have to actually experience them first.

As I kind of mentioned yesterday, two years ago I was studying abroad in Spain. Studying abroad is a great thing, and I would recommend it to everyone who isn’t going to use the opportunity (and their parent’s money) just to get drunk on a yacht in the Mediterranean. There are enough idiots doing that already.

In my opinion studying in another country should be used only to immerse yourself in a new culture (and if that culture gets you drunk, well, you can have your cake and eat it too.) If you’re wondering, I’m going to save you some time and probably a headache by letting you know something important: Immersion of this kind is hard, because things are different. Hopefully you can accept this knowledge ahead of time.

And just so you don’t think I’m completely being a jerk, I’ll share some of the struggles I encountered, which were certainly not few:

  1. Words – I’ve complained about language before, and this experience was no exception. You will always encounter issues between languages, sometimes due to vocab, sometimes due to a cultural subtlety. Here’s some of my favorites in Spanish:

–          Coger – v. – Meaning “to grab.” However, depending on which Spanish-speaking country you’re from, it has a much less appropriate meaning. Be careful when telling someone you’ll “coger” them for a date.

–          Embarazada – adj. – Does not mean ’embarrassed.’ This is a great false cognate to be aware of. A woman describing herself as “embarazada” will lead to questions such as “Oh, when is the baby coming?” A man describing himself this way will lead to many more questions.

–          Incomodo – adj. – This is the best translation for “awkward,” though it really just means “uncomfortable.” Trying to describe to a Spanish person that these are two different concepts was not a conversation I was fully prepared for.

–          Asco – adj. – As in the exclamation “¡Que asco!” This is a great example of a word that doesn’t directly translate well. “¡Que asco!” is most commonly used as “Gross!” or “Ugh!” but actually is defined as “repulsive, disgusting.” A lack of cultural context could lead to some hurt feelings.

These are pretty basic examples and there are many more of these situations, but I don’t really feel like listing them all. So instead we’ll move on to:

2. Being an outsider – In my case especially, since I’m stocky, blond and American, I didn’t exactly blend with the native Spanish people. I had to combat a lot of preconceptions while I was there, which believe it or not included that I actually know how to speak Spanish. I tried (kind of unsuccessfully) to not get offended by this. Because of a lot of Americans who are more stereotypical, it’s safer for a native Spaniard to assume my brain is vacant. And after being embarrassed by several of my countrymen while over there, I can’t disagree.

To make things worse, I was in Barcelona, which is a part of Catalunya. This means that, while I was able to communicate with pretty much everyone, my bilingualism didn’t put me any closer to being a native since I didn’t speak Catalan. Also, despite my efforts to learn the language, six months isn’t enough time to gain much more than a working knowledge of any tongue, even if it’s pretty close to one of the languages you already speak. So I largely ended up sticking out like the chubby gringo sore-thumb that I am.

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